The use of visual images in research is not new, but the way they are used continues to evolve and grow. Visual images help to generate research data and provide the tools through which data is analysed, and they are a medium by which research results can be clearly communicated.

Visual research methods (VRM) involve using imagery to prompt and encourage emotive responses. It can take many forms, including photographs, diagrams, rational maps, charts and graphical representations. They all contribute to a deeper understanding of insight, behaviour and decision-making processes.

VRM can explore beyond the behaviour we see on the surface or take for granted. They can uncover and truly understand the deep influences, motivations and triggers of behaviour and decisions.

The effective use of VRM helps researchers to deliver greater understanding to clients. The images selected when reporting and presenting results are effectively the windows to the insight gained from our research. The right images aren’t just pretty pictures – they provide an important mechanism for quickly understanding the key messages and emerging themes from research.

Enhancing and illuminating

Researchers have been using images for many years to enhance and illuminate findings, often using visual imagery during focus groups and interviews to elicit feedback and responses. But cultural change and technological innovation have contributed to new thinking on how we use VRM and our understanding of the benefits.

Research respondents are increasingly being given an opportunity to generate their own visual data, which can be incorporated into research findings to underpin insights that illustrate the customer experience, journey and future behaviour intent.

These images can also help identify influence touch-points that can be used to create a better customer experience, and they help shape tailored strategies for target audiences.

VRM creates a communication and feedback channel for both the researcher and the respondent. Qualitative research increasingly encourages respondents to generate their own images in the form of journals that track behaviour and experience over time. Not only does this provide detailed and documented data to analyse, it provides the respondent with the benefit of time to reflect on their choices. The respondent can use the distance of time to review and consider their actions, which in turn gives in-depth and rich insight to the research process.

The growing global gaming audience is a good example of how images and screenshots, saved and shared by more than 2.5 billion people worldwide, provide a huge untapped source of data on human behaviour that can be used to better understand how decisions are made and ultimately how behaviour can be influenced.

The Sims, one of the best-selling video games series of all time, allows players to simulate real-life situations. They create virtual people, making virtual decisions within a platform that allows topical questions to be explored. This creates a bank of valuable data that could be used to help better understand the motivations and triggers behind decisions and also assist in the identification of influence touch-points.

Time, understanding and clarity

Time, understanding and clarity are the principle benefits of incorporating visual methods into research processes, reports and deliverables. Images help the researcher gather data and tell a story, they allow messages to be quickly understood and digested, and they provide immediate connection to the research insight. A research story is strengthened by use of visual elements.

Good research organisations should be committed to providing effective research insights by constantly keeping in touch with new, emerging visual research techniques. They should be constantly training and keeping up to date with understanding the power of visual impact and broadening their understanding of the vital part images play when communicating insights. It is an effective way to deliver clarity and relevance to research output.